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Voluntourism is a top travel trend-Is it right for you?


Not everyone’s ideal vacation involves lounging on a beach or schlepping through amusement parks. Each year, millions of travelers around the world seek out trips that offer more than adventure through voluntourism.

headshot of Shannon O'Donnell

Ms. O'Donnell

What is voluntourism?

Voluntourism, a combination of volunteering and tourism, is a multi-billion dollar industry that is growing in popularity each year among young adults and even families with young children. It caught the attention of readers on our recent poll in DermPulse, and offers a unique experience in travel, cultural immersion, and a way to give back.

Shannon O’Donnell, National Geographic Traveler of the Year, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, founder of Grassroots Volunteering, has been traveling the world through volunteerism since 2008. Sharing her stories through her book and her blog, A Little Adrift, O’Donnell offer tips, resources, and cost-saving strategies for individuals who want to spend their free time in the service of others abroad.

Sharing her inspiration for voluntourism with DermPulse, O’Donnell says she initially set out on a one-year world trip that turned into so much more.

“Service was always a part of my life before I left to travel, and when I set out on a one-year round the world trip, I knew that I wanted to find a way to incorporate volunteering into my travels,” O’Donnell says. “Over the years, I have always researched places online before heading to a new place, and talk to other travelers to find organizations that might need my skills.”

O’Donnell wanted to add meaning to her love of traveling, and shares a list of tourism-facing social enterprises on her Grassroots Volunteering website. She says volunteer travel enables her to see the world and have an impact at the same time.

“Instead of reserving my service to only when I can find a way to volunteer, being a responsible traveler and infusing money into the right places means my impact is far larger,” O’Donnell says.

A growing industry

O’Donnell is not alone in her quest to make an impact through travel. A 2015 poll by Marriott Rewards Credit Card from Chase found that 84% of millennials want to travel abroad for volunteerism. While young adults in their “gap years” are often what first comes to mind when thinking of volunteer travel, another 2015 study found that families with young children are attracted to voluntourism, too. A 2015 poll by the Family Travel Association and the NYU School of Professional Studies found that 10% of families reported taking volunteer mission trips, and 29% are planning such a trip in the future.

Getting started

For medical professionals, there are volunteerism opportunities abroad in medical service. Many health organizations offer resources for employees looking to volunteer their time abroad, and there are numerous organizations to facilitate such trips. Some companies even offer time off-whether paid or unpaid-for volunteer travel or contribute to a traveler’s expenses. But that isn’t the limit on voluntourism.

“There's an incredible array of opportunities for any type of volunteer,” O’Donnell says. “You can engage in conservation, teaching, disaster relief, and more. If it's a skill that you have, there chances are you can find an organization in the world that could use that knowledge.”

Do your research

O’Donnell recommends doing research on the many types of volunteer travel to fit your needs, budget, and qualifications.

“Do your research before you leave home,” she says. “It's your job to be sure your volunteer project and organization are using the best ethical practices for the industry, so read up a lot, and ask a lot of questions so you can best avoid any ethically iffy projects.”

There are endless resources, and volunteer travel can be done alone, through volunteer travel organizations, or social enterprise networks.

O’Donnell says impacts aren’t limited to volunteering, either. Responsible travelers can help make an impact in many ways, even when traveling for pleasure.


“For those taking any type of trip, there is no limit to the ways that you can use your tourism dollars to directly benefit local communities through booking the right hotels and tour experiences, and picking restaurants with a social mission,” she says.

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